Brilliant, Grumpy Old Men

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

Two of the better books I’ve read lately come from secular authors, James Hillman and Kurt Vonnegut. What these writers have in common, beyond common sense and great insight, is the fact that they’re both senior citizens, Elders, at that age where one is free enough to say what is needed without having to apologize.

Vonnegut’s book, A Man Without a Country, is a series of essays all loosely held together under the umbrella of the thoughts and feelings of an outsider, an exile, a man who can’t find a home even when he is supposedly at home. Here are a couple of examples:

On creativity: “The arts are not a way to make living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Reading this, one is reminded of challenge that the poet, William Stafford, once threw out to an audience. He told them: “Get up each morning and write a poem before you do anything else!” “How can you do that?” someone asked, “you don’t always feel inspired!” “Lower your standards!” said Stafford. Creating anything, even if it isn’t up to professional standards or up to our own fantasies, makes the soul grow.

Vonnegut offers some insights too on marriage: What women and men are really looking for, he contends, is someone to talk to. But two people alone in a room or in a marriage don’t always add up to enough people, particularly if one is a woman and one is a man. More people need to be around, lots more. Big families, he says, have this figured out, and that is why marriage works best in extended families where there are more people to talk to. What really happens when a man and a woman are struggling in a marriage is this: No matter what their actual words, they are really saying to each other: “You are not enough people!” That’s the real inadequacy in most marriages,

James Hillman’s book is entitled, The Force of Character, and is on aging. He begins with a question: “Why? Why is it ordained, by nature and God, that just when we reach the age when our mental capacities are at their greatest that our bodies begin to fall apart and no amount of doctoring can keep us glued together?” His answer: The best wines need to be aged in cracked old barrels. So too the soul. It needs to be aged in a cracked old barrel. The physical infirmities and humiliations of old age are what mellow the soul.”

He then writes a series of chapters, each of which reflects on one of the physical challenges of aging, showing how that peculiar challenge is meant to shape and mellow the soul in a needed way. Here’s an example:

Why, he asks, does nature arrange it so that, at a certain age, you have to get up at night to go to the toilet? Why this indignity and cruelty?

Monks know the answer: They ring a bell at night and get up to pray a particular set of prayers called vigils. Vigils are properly done in darkness. Their mood and purpose are only served at night. Nature too knows this too and it turns us all into monks before we die. It makes us get up to attend to a humbling bodily imperative, but, once up, we don’t so quickly get back to sleep because Nyx, the goddess of night, pays us a visit and brings along her children - phantoms of fate, death, guilt, despair, blame, revenge, lust - and they keep us awake and force us to deal with them because we won’t deal with them during daylight. Awakening in the dark has always been seen spiritually as helping open one’s eyes to the other world and as a way of building character beyond selfishness. All religious traditions have the idea that night is the time we can gain the most insight from the other world. Monks have secrets worth knowing. They pre-empt nature and get up voluntarily at night to deal with these things. We don’t and so Nyx and her children, perhaps angry at us for avoiding them during the day, make their unwelcome appearance and force us to deal with them. When we can’t sleep at night, we are forced to recognize that our lives in the light have not been shadow-free.

Another nugget: Healthy sexuality, he says, “lies less in controlling lustful fantasies than in understanding their transpersonal nature as a cosmic dynamic.”

James Hillman and Kurt Vonnegut, a couple of grumpy, brilliant old men who do what Elders are supposed to do, dispense wisdom to the young!